Getting Real About Empathy – Part 1 of 5: Introduction to Concepts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 2part 3, part 4, and part 5.

According to recent news, researchers at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco found that prolonging dopamine’s effect in the brain makes people more sensitive to inequality and more willing to divide resources equally. Judging from their comments, it’s clear that they view empathy-induced egalitarianism as a virtue. The original study by Ignacio Sáez, Lusha Zhu, Eric Set, Andrew Kayser, and Ming Hsu, “Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behavior in Humans,” in Current Biology Vol. 25, Issue 7 (2015) can be found here.

In this post, I offer a nuanced view of empathy and compassion as well as a critique of the aforementioned researchers’ assumptions and mission. As an introduction to the concept of empathy, here is how Frans De Waal described empathy in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other AnimalsEmpathy is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and many forms of empathy exist between the extremes of mere agitation at the distress of another and full understanding of their predicament. De Waal’s conception of empathy and related discussion appears in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007).

First, let’s define empathy before breaking it into its component parts. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand another’s state of mind (e.g., thoughts and emotions). It’s important to note, however, that empathy requires the one attempting to empathize with another not to confuse the self and the other. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t put yourself in another person’s shoes in order to empathize. Instead, you must understand the other person well enough to know how the other person experiences wearing his or her shoes. It’s been found, however, that even while people think they understand others, they are generally egocentric and unable to suppress their self-perspective. This “self-bias,” described at length in “Social Neuroscience of Empathy” by Jean Decety and Sara Hodges, is an important point I will revisit in my critique of assumptions Sáez et al. are making.

A regulatory and monitoring mechanism that modulates inner states enables people to distinguish between themselves and their own feelings from others. This ability, referred to as “cognitive appraisal,” involves keeping track of the origins (self or other) of experienced feelings. This mechanism is described more in depth in “The empathetic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions,” BioPsychoSocial Medicine Vol. 1, No. 22 (2007) and “On the Nature, Modeling, and Neural Bases of Social Ties” by Frans van Winden, Mirre Stallen, and Richard Ridderinkhof.

Understanding (via affective or cognitive empathy) only leads individuals to take prosocial action if they also have access to a component that neuroscientists and psychologists call “compassionate empathy” (also referred to as “empathetic concern” or “prosocial motivation”). The neural pathways and brain regions involved are described at length in “The neural components of empathy: Predicting daily prosocial behavior” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access (2012) and “The Neural Bases for Empathy,” The Neuroscientist Vol. 17, No. 1 (2011).

In recent years, cognitive and affective empathy have enjoyed much attention as different degrees of each have been found to correlate with various personalities. Cognitive empathy (also referred to as “cognitive perspective-taking”), is the ability to recognize and identify (unemotionally) another’s emotions or state of mind by perceiving and evaluating observable hints about another’s state of mind (e.g., facial expression, tone of voice, body language). Affective empathy (also known as “emotional empathy” and “affective resonance”) involves knowing another’s state of mind through experiencing emotional contagion (i.e., feeling what the other feels), and this type of empathy has the capacity to regulate individuals’ actions.

People who have cognitive empathy but not affective empathy can still successfully fake emotional resonance in order to mirror others. However, one of the practical benefits of having access to affective empathy along with cognitive empathy is that the additional visceral experience of others’ emotions enables people to mirror others more accurately than when cognitive empathy functions alone. Finally, people’s ability to consciously regulate (i.e., turn off and on) their affective empathy varies.

To illustrate these concepts, let’s consider a typical situation some doctors deal with. Ideally, a doctor can recognize that the patient is anxious (via cognitive empathy) but would not feel the patient’s anxiety (via affective empathy) when it’s time to deliver an injection. The emotional contagion would become an impediment to giving the shot. In other words, empathy can be and often is counterproductive. That said, although it’s common for one type of empathy to spark another so that they work in tandem, affective and cognitive empathy can function independently as well. Finally, people can be high, moderate, or low on any or all types of empathy.

In part 2, “Critical Roles and Contributions of the Less Empathetic” and part 3, “Moral Implications and Consequences,” I will expand on the range of problems and benefits that result from having individuals of various degrees of empathy as members of society.

Recap: Empathy, which has cognitive and affective components, is too often thought of as purely good. But empathy can be dysfunctional in some contexts. And empathy can be exploited for evil purposes.